Cycling to the Sahara: The Road to Ksar Ghilane

Matmata: another man with a 4×4 offers me a desert Safari.
‘No, thanks,’ I reply. ‘I’m cycling to Ksar Ghilane on my bicycle tomorrow.’
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘You know the best way is down this road. More direct than the main route.’
‘Really?’ I ask.
‘Yes, yes. Over the jebel, then – ‘ he makes a motion with his hand as if it’s all down hill from there.
I’m slightly nervous as the road he indicates is not marked on my drawn-from-space road map. So I ask: ‘Is it signed?’
‘Yes, yes. It is direct to a roundabout, turn right and arrive Bir Soltane – after that Ksar Ghilane.’

So, always happy to avoid a main road, I vow to follow his advice.

The next day, it takes me approximately ten minutes to recognise the truth of Tolkein’s aphorism that short cuts make long delays.

Less a road, more one extended pot hole.

The “road” that led over the jebel was, well, I think even a 4×4 would have had trouble to be honest. I certainly didn’t see any attempting it. To cross it on a fully-laded touring bicycle was nerve-shredding. As the front wheel stacked into deep road-scars, I’d wince as the back wheel crunched down with the full weight of my baggage. Every moment I expected to hear the crack of spokes snapping. Up hill was dragging slow, but the down hills were only more dangerous.

And – is it signed, my arse! Unless by “signs” he meant “old men on donkeys” of whom I encountered two, both appearing at critical moments. Once as I pondered turning back at the sight of miles and miles of up and down hills tracked only by treacherous washed-out roads, pot holes the size of meteor craters. And the other when I reached the “roundabout” of my guide’s description. Is it signed? No it is not signed. At all. It’s a T-junction with a choice of east or west. That’s it.

But at least the road surface after the junction is better. If I could reach the road surface, that is. Unfortunately it is covered in an inch of sand, so the bike can only manage about ten metres of swerves before I have to dig the tyres out of the dune. Still, I’d rather swerves than the potential death of the pot holes.

I tell a lie: there was ONE sign. But look at that sand!

This “road” to Ksar Ghilane is also guarded by ten dogs. Thankfully, they were only barkers, not chasers. I think they were gobsmacked to see a cyclist to be honest. Only one shepherd’s dog put in a half-hearted chase.

I didn’t get lost at any point on this “road”, but I think that is only because to be lost you must have had some idea of where you were in the first place. I didn’t see more than ten people all day – a few flocks of sheep and two camels – but not many people who could guide me.

Huh? Is this the Sahara or the Cotswolds?

When I saw a shepherd boy on a donkey, I dumped my bike at the side of the road and marched across the sand towards him. He climbed down off his donkey and started over to me. We met in the middle.
“You are alone?” he asked, after comfirming that this was indeed the road to Bir Soltane. “Very difficult,” he added, somewhat unnecessarily.

The “road” surface was mainly spine-crunching stones about the size of a baby’s head. Every bounce and crack a brief panic at the idea of getting a puncture – or worse, that my wheel spokes would snap at the strain. The surface and the care that I took with it meant that I couldn’t exactly enjoy the view. After the mountains, it would be fair to say that there wasn’t much view to enjoy anyway.

Stark. Featureless. Bumpy.

Every now and then I’d cross a waterless wadi, turned into a sea of gravel. I’d need to push across, of course.

After “cycling” through this god-blasted land for 26.08 miles at an average speed of just 8.1mph, I finally reached the main road to Ksar Ghilane, where the 4x4s roar.

Hurrah – only another 28 miles to go! Into a 14mph headwind.

I’ve never been so glad to see a proper road in my life.

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